Penn State and the Future

07/18/2012 01:09 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2012

The Freeh report on the Pennsylvania State University charges a failure of leadership of Penn State's administration, and seemingly confirms the Board of Trustee's decision to oust former president Graham Spanier in November 2011. Unsurprisingly, Spanier's attorneys have countered that "Mr. Freeh unfairly offered up Dr. Spanier and others to those insisting upon a finding of culpability at the highest level of the University."

The response from Spanier's team indicates that Spanier has held federal security clearance, and that he was successfully re-investigated to have the clearance upheld during the period of the Freeh inquiry.Therefore, so goes the implication of their claim, the Freeh report is perhaps modified in Spanier's case by another supposedly dispassionate investigation.

All of this has reminded me that Spanier once had an almost unbelievable policy in his early days at Penn State: he would answer any email within 24 hours.

In 1996, my senior year as an undergraduate, I decided I would apply to graduate school in English. A quick survey of my favorite professors at PSU found almost all of them to be graduate students.

From the shiny new computers at The Daily Collegian, the student newspaper where I worked as one of the Arts editors, I sent Spanier a message. In this email, I praised the quality of my English courses but lamented the fact that I had no cohort of tenured professors to ask for a letter of recommendation. I wrote truthfully as to how much I had come to enjoy Penn State, and how despite my own initial misgivings, I now identified as a proud student of this excellent public institution. I ended by asking if Spanier would be willing to write me a letter of support.

He indeed replied within a day, politely informing me that he could only write letters for students he knew personally (which I imagine included the entire cadre of student-government types we routinely tracked at the Collegian.)

I responded that I would be happy to introduce myself in a personal meeting to best facilitate the letter.

He never replied. Perhaps my posturing didn't really deserve a second response.

Yet if the scathing analysis of the Freeh report is correct, the victims of Jerry Sandusky deserved so much more than posturing from Spanier and the PSU administration.

They deserved treatment from officials who could stand outside the football program, or at least far enough away from it to understand the real and horrendous crimes that needed to be dealt with in the sunlight. Of course, anyone who has ever lived in Pennsylvania would need no reminder of the omnipresence of the state's football culture.

Evidence of PSU's football-centeredness pulsed, for me, like a throbbing headache in almost every corner of Pennsylvania. The university is composed of 23 branches (the "Commonwealth" campuses and several specialized study locations), and is therefore actively signaled in the local lives of much of the state's population. This only adds to the brand's ubiquity.

My high-school friends (with their parents and grandparents) would gather to watch the televised games as if attending mass with the Pope and they would make regular pilgrimages to tailgate in State College and they would sport paw-print notebooks in school and they would wear PSU sweatshirts at the homecoming bonfire. These were all ways to represent the vague standard of the place in daily life, and I perceived this non-articulated principle to be something like this: PSU has a great football team, and everyone in this state has a duty, to one degree or another, to express pride in this fact.

A 2009 episode of This American Life (396: #1 Party School) captures this aspect of the State College with almost uncanny exactitude, especially as it dovetails with the extensive party atmosphere of campus.

Accordingly, Washington Post columnist Tracee Hamilton writes pointedly of the Freeh report's condemnation of "a culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus."

"And yet, and yet... is the culture of reverence still there? On Saturday afternoons, is it going to be easy to forget those poor shivering boys as fans stroll campus in the beautiful autumn sunshine? If Penn State comes away unscathed -- no scholarships lost, no outside controls put in place -- does that send the message that even child rape is less important than a bowl appearance and a Big Ten title?"

The current discussion as to whether Penn State should cancel the next football season is at best a distraction from the larger issue of the culture of reverence's pervasiveness. Yes, for the team to kick-off next year (and therefore possess some ability to absorb elements of the scandal onto their playing and away from the victims) is a travesty, but would anything really be mitigated by a single-year break?

What will happen when a university that covered-up this scandal for 14 years returns to football business-as-usual?

The issue of the football program's future needs to be bundled into a larger revision of an entire multi-generational mindset regarding the manner in which basic human morality -- not to mention academics -- has become secondary to the money- and reputation-making juggernaut of a certain ugly brand of college athletics.

This of course raises a larger question for our university system? What, exactly, is the relevance of sports programs to universities? If the university is about the production and study of knowledge, how does an entire industry only tangentially related to this mission come to dominate the agenda of so many of our particularly public (or, in the case of PSU, "state-related") American universities? The word "sports" is noticeably absent from the PSU mission statement, and yet it was almost impossible to even think of Penn State pre-Sandusky scandal, without thinking of football.

The Christian Science Monitor's Brad Knickerbocker and others report that Penn State will attempt to settle claims from Sandusky's victims in a manner that would avoid costly trials and also avoid the addition of punitive damages.

The financial motivations for this may be evident, and the decision of victims as to how they handle their claims should be entirely their own. Yet Penn State has the opportunity to finally change its athletic culture of reverence, and this starts with how the institution handles the aftermath of Sandusky's conviction.

The victims of Jerry Sandusky should be empowered to pursue their claims in court so much as they wish to do so. Whether this costs Penn State 1 million or 100 million is irrelevant to the broader questions of how Penn State might reorient itself for the future. There is no magic dollar amount the university might pay to have these wrongs made right. There is no amount of money to compensate these victims for their abuse or the obstructions of the university in ending the abuser's access to his victims.

Yet, a process of full discovery as to the lengths of the cover-up -- which certainly includes fair hearings for Spanier (as well as Gary Schultz, Tim Curley, and the reputation of now-deceased Joe Paterno) -- may assist the public in further understanding lengths to which the university has not only failed the victims in this case, but also how the university has abdicated its position as an institution where its values are derived from its academic mission.

New President Rodney Erickson's has written in an email to the campus community (see here), "Although we cannot undo history, we can become agents for change and reaffirm our core values of honesty, integrity and justice. I promise you, we will learn from our past and take the steps that will allow us to emerge and grow into a stronger, better university."

I hope that this starts with the ability of victims who wish to have their claims heard in court receiving full cooperation from Penn State.

Back to Spanier's security clearance: we often think of security clearance as valuing discretion and the ability to keep secrets. While I imagine Spanier's attorney's meant that his re-vetting demonstrates a different point, I, for one, am tired of matters proceeding away from public scrutiny. Secrecy is the problem.

My wife, upon seeing the Freeh report, sent me an email with the link: "I'm so disappointed in PSU."

I hope that as Sandusky's victims proceed with their claims -- whether in court or through private negotiation -- Penn State make good on its rhetoric to become a better university.